Key question lingers: Who started the war in Georgia?
As EU monitors arrive, new details contradict Russia's assertion that Georgia invaded South Ossetia first.
Tskhinvali, South Ossetia; and Moscow
Who started the Russia-Georgia war?Skip to next paragraph
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Ask residents of this now battered Soviet-era provincial capital, you'll hear only one answer: Georgia.
Just hours after announcing a unilateral cease-fire on Aug. 7, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered a massive artillery and armored assault aimed at restoring rebellious South Ossetia to Georgian rule.
"Thank God the Russians came in time," says Elena Khublova, who says she survived by hiding in a basement. "The Georgians were killing anybody who came into the street."
But new details contradict that version of events, according to a Russian investigative journalist. At the United Nations last week, Mr. Saakashvili also laid out a starkly different narrative, and pleaded for an impartial international investigation to gain "a clearer understanding of how this war started, and who started it."
Finding the answer is not merely an academic or historical exercise. Russian observers say the answer is critical to current global perceptions of a resurgent Russia. Is it a rational – if increasingly assertive – regional power protecting its flanks? Or is it reviving the international ambitions and military expansionism of the former USSR?
Much is also at stake for Saakashvili, who argued at the UN that "Georgia was attacked because it is a successful democracy," and who is asking the West to back his tiny Caucasus nation's drive to join NATO.
"In Georgian society, as well as around the world, exactly how the war started is the biggest question mark," says Archil Gegeshidze, an expert with the independent Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. "We want to know whether this crisis was avoidable or not."
Was Georgia the aggressor?
The Kremlin insists that it intervened only to blunt the Georgian offensive and save South Ossetia's Russian-passport-carrying population under 1992 accords that designate Russia as the peacekeeper in the region. Most of the world accepts key elements of the Russian version, and very few contradict it.
South Ossetia, a Rhode Island-sized territory of about 70,000 people, declared independence from Georgia as the USSR was collapsing.
It defeated Georgian forces in 1992, and survived until last summer as a Russian protectorate with no chances of being recognized as an independent country, even by Moscow. Though the territory is Georgian under international law, Russian experts argue that Georgia's second attempt to seize it by force invalidate Tbilisi's claim.